Sunday, August 31, 2008
Rolling up the Wheel of Time panel
Our panelists, left to right: Moshe Feder, moderator and Brandon’s non-Wheel of Time editor at Tor; Tom Doherty, Tor founder and publisher; Brandon Sanderson, tapped to finish A Memory of Light; Elise Mattheson, the late John M. Ford’s partner and a close family friend of the Rigneys; Peter Ahlstrom, erstwhile manga editor and longtime Wheel of Time fan who’s known Brandon for 10 years. (Picture thanks to Skwid.)
On Saturday, August 9th, I had the privilege to take part in the Rolling up the Wheel of Time panel at the World Science Fiction Convention in Denver. I had thought some podcaster would probably record this panel, but apparently that didn’t happen. The following is a somewhat cleaned up semi-stream-of-consciousness reconstruction of the panel from the copious notes I took throughout.
Moshe starts off the panel asking Tom to talk about how The Wheel of Time got started. Tom says that the story begins with Harriet. Tom was publisher of the Tempo imprint for Grosset & Dunlap back in the ’70s, and Harriet was his top editor. They did so well with Tempo that Grosset & Dunlap went out and bought SF publisher Ace for them to run. Their success continued at Ace, and Tom brought in an editor named Jim Baen to work under Harriet. Sales volume doubled.
Soon after this, though, Harriet’s parents died and she inherited the family house in downtown Charleston—with a 500-square-foot walled garden, a gardener, a maid, and a cook who had been with the family for years. “Harriet is a Southern Princess,” Tom says. Harriet was divorced and wanted to go home to Charleston to raise her son. Tom didn’t want to lose her as an editor, so Popham Press was created. Harriet acquired and edited books down in Charleston, and production and marketing were done by Ace under a profit-sharing agreement. “It was telecommuting before the word was invented,” Tom says.
Harriet met Jim Rigney in a local bookstore there in Charleston. Jim was an engineer in atomic submarines who had been injured, and while he was recuperating, he was writing. The bookstore owner knew Harriet was an editor, and he thought the two of them should meet, so he introduced them.
Jim wrote a book called Fallon Blood to romanticize a part of U.S. history he felt had been overlooked in popular culture—the Southern role in the Revolutionary War (Swamp Fox, etc.). He decided that he would publish his books under pseudonyms, and use a different one for each series. He used the name Reagan O’Neal for the Fallon books.
Then Grosset & Dunlap started having problems and they brought in a “financial guy” to run the company. He decided that they should only publish bestsellers. This is part of the reason Tom left to found Tor Books. The opportunity came up for Tor to publish some Conan novels, one of which would be a novelization of the Conan the Destroyer movie. Jim Rigney was interested in doing the book and some other Conan novels, and the pseudonym he picked for them was Robert Jordan. He also took over editing some sword & sorcery books for Tor.
In 1984, Jim came to Tom and said, “I’ve got a great idea for an epic fantasy, and it’s going to be 6 books.” Tom says that book one was 5 years late [it came out in 1989]. Tom describes first reading the manuscript for The Eye of the World: “Oh God, I fell in love with it.” He knew it would be the greatest epic fantasy since Tolkien. Tor prepared a marketing campaign unprecedented in those days of 5,000 Advance Reader Copies to send one to every bookstore in the country and a combined hardcover/trade paperback first printing. 40,000 books sold out almost immediately, and when the second book came out, the sales of The Eye of the World shot up again, doubling what it had sold the first time. After that, Tor stopped the trade paperback part of the release and just pushed the hardcover.
Jim always said he knew the ending of the series, Tom says. And when he was working on A Memory of Light, he wrote the ending. That plus the prologue and the rest of what he wrote totaled 200 manuscript pages [that’s about 50,000 words].
Tom loved Brandon’s book Elantris and liked Mistborn even more. While Jim was originally against anyone else writing Wheel of Time books, toward the end of his life he became convinced that since he would not be able to finish the last book, someone else needed to. Tom calls The Wheel of Time a series that “will be read for generations,” and he says, “We’ll be proud of Brandon’s work going forward.” Tom mentions that Jim also planned to eventually write some books taking place about 10 years after A Memory of Light that would mostly focus on Mat and Tuon [the books known as the outrigger novels].
Moshe then asks Brandon how he got involved in The Wheel of Time. Brandon says his story starts when he was in 8th grade (in 1989?). He wasn’t a reader. For a school book report, he wanted to do a Three Investigators novel he’d read years before. [Hey, some of those books are excellent!] His teacher gave him a book and said to do his report on it instead—that was Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly. Brandon’s reaction upon reading the book: “Somebody’s writing books for me!” After this he started devouring every fantasy he could get his hands on.
The next year was 1990, and Brandon saw the Eye of the World paperback in the bookstore and was immediately drawn by the cover, which he believes is the best cover Darrell Sweet has done. And the page count made him say, “I have to have that one! It’s so big!” When he started reading the book, the level of complexity made Brandon’s mind spin—in a good way. Also, Rand, Mat, and Perrin were his same age, which made him more interested in their story.
Fantasy gave Brandon direction in his life. When he started out at BYU, his first major was chemistry, but he quickly realized that there was a big difference between “liking science” and college chemistry. However, Brandon’s job as a night desk clerk at a hotel gave him plenty of time for writing.
The idea of getting published with Tor meant something to Brandon because “They published Robert Jordan!” When Moshe told Brandon he wanted to buy Elantris, Brandon’s editor Joshua said, “Now we can see if anyone else can give us a better offer!” and Brandon said, “No way, Tor’s the best there is. Why would I go with anyone else?”
The death of Robert Jordan wasn’t an opportunity. It was a tragedy.
Elise talks about how she saw Brandon’s blog post eulogizing Jim, and it immediately struck her that she needed to print it out. She gave it to Harriet, saying, “You have to read this.” Later that day she saw Harriet reading the post out loud to others of Jim’s friends. [I spoke with Elise right after the panel, and she added lots of fascinating details. I looked around to see if she’s shared her telling of this story anywhere online, but didn’t find anything. I hope that she will share it sometime, because it’s a great story from a fascinating woman.]
Brandon got a voicemail from Harriet that said, “Please call me back. I want to talk to you about something.” Brandon called back and couldn’t catch Harriet at home for several hours. He called Tor, and Moshe wasn’t in, but he got in touch with Patrick. Patrick said, “It’s what you probably think it is. I’ll make sure Harriet calls you back.”
Harriet did call back, and she told Brandon that she was considering several writers to finish the last book of the Wheel of Time and wanted to know if he was interested in being considered. Brandon’s first reaction was to think, “Only Robert Jordan can write this book.” His second thought was, “If somebody else is going to write it, I want it to be me.” Up until this point, Brandon had been worried about who was going to finish the series—as a lot of fans were worrying. Brandon knew that as a fan of the series, he would write it with the needs of the series in mind and not try to take it his own direction.
Tom [at the panel] says that the pick of who to finish the series was Harriet’s pick and no one but her should make it. But in this case he agrees with her choice of Brandon. Harriet told him that Brandon was her first choice for the job.
Brandon says that when he arrived at the Rigney house in Charleston, the first two things he asked to see were how the book ended—and who killed Asmodean.
Of the 200 manuscript pages that Jim wrote, the largest part is the prologue, the next largest is the ending, and the rest of the pages are chunks from elsewhere in the book. Brandon estimated that if Jim had completed the manuscript it would have ended up at 2,000 manuscript pages [that’s 500,000 words using standard manuscript format].
Brandon explains that he is writing the book according to viewpoint cluster. There are several groups of characters who follow their own plotlines until toward the end of the book—at the three-quarter or 80% mark—all the groups meet up. Brandon’s writing the book one viewpoint cluster at a time. The first cluster he focused on was Rand’s, with Rand, Nynaeve, Min, etc. Brandon has finished writing this viewpoint cluster from the beginning of the book up until that meet-up point. Now he’s working on the Perrin, Faile, Galad cluster. After this he’ll move on to Egwene and the White Tower, then Mat and Thom, and then he’ll work on a more unconnected cluster of viewpoints that aren’t as closely connected to each other, such as Elayne’s story and what’s going on with the Black Tower, etc. Then when all the viewpoints are all gathered together at the same place, Brandon will write the last part of the story up to and including the part that Jim wrote. For each group of characters there are detailed notes on who’s there and what secrets can be revealed.
Including what Brandon has been writing during this trip (he even wrote in the car while his wife drove), he’s written almost 200,000 words so far.
“200,000?” Tom breaks in. “You told me yesterday you were a third done!” Everyone in the room does the math.
Brandon says the goal is not to leave out anything that Jim has written. As much of what he has written will make it into print as physically possible. Any manuscript words that Jim has written will go in the book. If Jim said that something has to happen, it will happen.
Tom says, “It’s sounding more and more like two volumes.”
This was Jim Rigney’s dying request: “Take care of the fans. Find someone to finish the book.”
If the book does end up needing to get split, Brandon would prefer for the first half to be released in October 2009 and the second in November 2009, with a leatherbound special edition of the complete book.
Tom says, “I do not believe it’s physically possible to bind in one book.” [I’m interpreting this as a reaction to the possibility of the book being 600,000 words, and also not ruling out a special edition.]
Brandon says, “By the way, Jim was not artificially inflating the series. He was writing what he loved.”
There’s a question from the audience about the remaining two prequels besides New Spring. Brandon answers that the decision on whether or not those ever get written is completely up to Harriet. Brandon is not even thinking about those at this point; he does, after all, have his own books to write after he finishes up A Memory of Light. But then if Harriet does ask him to write the prequels—he’ll say yes, because after all, he still doesn’t want anyone else doing it.
By this time a lot of the questions I gathered from the fans have already been answered just in the course of the discussion; I ask Tom one that’s left. “Will the dedication page at the beginning of A Memory of Light be for Robert Jordan himself, or will there be some sort of tribute to the original author in the book?”
Tom and Brandon both answer that all the previous books were dedicated by Robert Jordan to Harriet, and they’re sure RJ and Harriet wouldn’t have it any other way for this book. However, Tom says there could be something like an explanatory introduction written by Harriet. We’ll see.
I then ask Brandon another fan question. “When you were only a fan of the series, which plotlines or mysteries were the ones you really wanted to find out the conclusion to? Were there some big surprises in store for you when you found out what happens?” Brandon says (speaking as he would have before reading any of book 12) that Moiraine’s story always interested him—that she was like a Gandalf character who wasn’t all-knowing. After reading book 11, he especially wanted to know what the next part of her story was. And of course there’s the Asmodean question. Brandon was also very much looking forward to a reunion between Rand and Tam. Surprises? Yes, there have been quite a few of them, but the foreshadowing has been there. Sometimes he reads a plot point in the outline—“And then this happens”—and thinks, “How am I going to write that?” Then he goes and asks Maria what the foreshadowing for it has been, and sure enough she finds it for him and everything clicks.
Another fan question for Brandon: The partial first draft (approximately 25%) that he’s going to send to Harriet, will the prologue be included in that? Brandon says yes. He isn’t quite ready to send the partial draft to Harriet, but when he does send it, it will include the prologue. He did already send a single chapter of his writing of A Memory of Light to Harriet, so she’s seen some of what he’s doing with it—Moshe, who is Brandon’s usual editor for all his other Tor books, says that he has read that chapter and was impressed how much the writing to him did not sound like Brandon’s other books; he says that Brandon has really been able to adapt his style. Tom then complains that he hasn’t seen the chapter yet; “I have to wait like the rest of you!” he says to the crowd. Brandon mentions that when Jim Rigney wrote a Wheel of Time book, each book would be in a very complete and polished state before he gave it to Harriet. Brandon, however, knows that he needs Harriet’s input much earlier in the process than Jim would have—if there’s anything Brandon is doing wrong, he needs Harriet to point it out so he can fix it. For example, the feel of the characters, or if he’s not being descriptive enough—but Brandon has in the past tended to write rather rough first drafts for his own books, so he really needs to go back and polish even the first draft up before he shows it to Harriet.
Another audience question: “Does your wife mind sleeping with Jim?” (Everyone laughs.) “What do you do to keep sane?” Brandon’s response: He writes. It relaxes him. Brandon’s wife hadn’t read the series beyond The Eye of the World, which is something that needed to be corrected! Brandon says that the response from the fan community has been generally positive—with only two death threats so far! He gets two to three dozen e-mails per day wishing him luck. A common refrain from the series is: “You will do well.” Brandon is putting in long hours working on this book. He feels like he’s a medical student working on his residency. He and his wife often sit in the same room working on different things while he writes—they’re together, but they’re in different worlds.
There’s a question from the audience about the pronunciation of Nyneave; the audience member says that years ago he heard Robert Jordan in a panel pronounce her name as “nih NAH veh” but Brandon said “nigh NEEV.” Brandon says he tends to use a lot of the pronunciations from the audio books, and Tom says that since Jim approved the audio books, their pronunciations are probably the way to go. Brandon says that he once asked how Morgase was pronounced and got three different answers—from Harriet, Maria, and Alan, and they’re supposed to know!
An audience member asks about Brandon’s style differences from Jim’s, and how writing this book will affect the style of his future books. Brandon says he tends to use more blow-by-blow action scenes, while Jim was a little closer where viewpoint was concerned—his writing was a shade closer to first person in the narration. Brandon chose in the past to be tighter and less wordy, but writing this book he’s letting it all out and being more free with the description—and he’s finding it rather refreshing. Brandon reiterates, though, that he is not writing a Robert Jordan book; Jim Rigney was the only one who could write a Robert Jordan book. He is, however, doing what he can to write a Wheel of Time book that will deliver what the fans and he himself as a fan expect from a Wheel of Time book.
Someone from the audience asks about a box set release after the series is done, and Tom, Brandon, and Moshe start joking about offering a bookcase already filled with Wheel of Time books. [They may not be aware that this has actually been done before with other series, such as Naruto.]
Brandon does read the FAQs collected in various places throughout the internet, and they’re very helpful, though Maria, Alan, and Harriet are the best resource. “So far there have been no chapter-long baths,” Brandon says. [Though at this point I can only guess what that comment was in response to.] There are many mysteries explained in the notes, and some are specifically labeled as not to be revealed in the books. Some character relationships will also go unresolved. Just because the books get all written doesn’t mean the characters’ lives and problems don’t continue on. The Wheel of Time turns. However, Tom mentions at this point that the planned Mat–Tuon trilogy to follow the series was already under contract.
In Brandon’s final comments on the panel, he tells two stories about visiting the Rigney home. One of them involves two chairs and two computers during his first visit, and the other involves a gift from Jim's cousin Wilson while Brandon was down in Charleston again to work out some plot holes in the outline. [Brandon mentioned wanting to tell at least one of these stories himself on his blog, so I’ll leave those to him.]
Brandon never met Robert Jordan in life. I was at a convention with him and Dan Wells a few years back when Jim walked by, and someone turned to Brandon and said, “That’s Jim Rigney—Robert Jordan.” That was the closest Brandon ever came to meeting the master. So Robert Jordan is still very much a kind of mythical figure to him, like a hero who has gone before. Brandon can only strive to follow in his footsteps.